The June 2016 Spanish elections: stabilizing party system change?

Luis Ramiro

The June 26th 2016, Spanish legislative elections were won by the incumbent People’s Party (Partido Popular: PP), in office since 2011 (see Table 1). The social democrat Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (Partido Socialista Obrero Español: PSOE) was the second largest party but at a considerable distance from the winner. The left-wing coalition United We Can (Unidos Podemos: UP), formed by the radical left United Left (Izquierda Unida: IU) and the populist radical left Podemos (We Can) – to which we can add three regional electoral alliances in which these two parties took part jointly with left-wing peripheral nationalist parties in Catalonia (En Comú Podem), Galicia (En Marea) and Comunidad Valenciana (A la Valenciana) – got the third place, only less than 2% behind the PSOE.

The other post-2008 crisis new nation-wide party, the centre-right Citizens (Ciudadanos) finished fourth. Among the very significant peripheral nationalist parties, the results confirmed patterns already apparent previously: the weakening of the radical left Basque nationalist Bildu formerly associated in different ways and degrees to the ETA terrorist group; the stable weight of the moderate centre-right Basque nationalism of the Basque Nationalist Party (Partido Nacionalista Vasco: PNV); and the change in the balance within the Catalan nationalism, with the centre-right Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (Convergencia Democratica de Catalunya: CDC) behind the centre-left Catalan Republican Left (Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya: ERC). However, the June elections were supposed to contribute to the clarification of several political issues of the greatest importance but, as will be explained, they left almost all these key questions without a clear answer.

Table 1. 2015 and 2016 Spanish general elections results (main parties): share of votes and number of MPs (in brackets)

  December 2015 June 2016
PP 28.7 (123) 33 (137)
PSOE 22 (90) 22.7 (85)
Citizens 13.9 (40) 13.1 (32)
Podemos/regional alliances 20.7 (69) 21 (71)
IU 3.7 (2)
ERC 2.4 (9) 2.6 (9)
CDC 2.2 (8) 2 (8)
PNV 1.2 (6) 1.2 (5)
Bildu 0.9 (2) 0.8 (2)

Source: Ministry of Internal Affairs (Ministerio del Interior).

The June 2016 elections were called after the December 2015 elections produced a hung parliament and the parties were unable to reach an agreement to form a government. During the months that followed the previous poll, during which the negotiations were expected to take place, the parties soon reached a stalemate that, amidst mutual vetoes, proved to be durable and permanent. The incumbent PP, aware of the difficulties of rallying a majority around it, somewhat surprisingly declined to even try to negotiate an agreement. The PSOE reached an agreement with the center-right Ciudadanos that required the support of the populist radical left Podemos. Yet, Podemos was not willing to support an agreement in which Ciudadanos took part. The PSOE did not accept the alternative agreement proposed by Podemos because it required the support of peripheral nationalist parties and the acceptance of independence referendums for some regions (as the Catalan allies of Podemos, En Comú Podem, strongly defended); and Ciudadanos explicitly rejected any agreement that included Podemos. The first key political issues that the June 2016 elections were expected to clarify were, therefore, whether the new elections would produce a result that would made government formation any easier, and the ensuing implications in terms of potential punishment and rewards for parties’ behaviour during the failed post-election government formation negotiations.

From this point of view, the June election results were far from conclusive. In a country where coalition governments have only (although very often) occurred at regional and local government levels, the allocation of seats pointed again towards a new hung parliament in which government formation would be far from straightforward. The PP improved its result compared to December 2015, both in terms of the share of the votes and number of MPs, despite its passive role during the government formation negotiations. The new centre-right party, Ciudadanos, lost ground. The PSOE slightly improved its share of the votes but saw its number of MPs reduced again. The poor Ciudadanos and PSOE results made the previous attempts by these two parties to form a minority government a very unlikely endeavour. UP maintained its number of MPs gained separately by IU and Podemos in December 2015, but their share of the votes fell well below the sum of what these two parties and their regional alliances had obtained then.

In this context, the clear winner of the elections, the PP, was forced to search for a very difficult agreement involving Ciudadanos and PSOE. In this way, compared to December the PP strengthened its position, though not greatly, and Ciudadanos and the PSOE were forced to a more secondary and subordinate role. UP can only repeat the strategy of appealing to a ‘progressive’ alliance with the PSOE that was unsuccessful after the December election and now faces the same, unresolved arithmetic and political problems, but with the two left-wing parties in an even weaker position. The PP’s passive role after the December elections appeared to be rewarded by the voters as a result of the unsuccessful maneuvers of the PSOE and Ciudadanos to form a minority government.

The second key political issue at stake in the June 2016 election was linked to the party system change that has been taking place in Spain since the start of the economic crisis. This has been clearly and dramatically visible since the 2014 European Parliament (EP) elections and, wholly articulated by the December 2015 elections results, has involved the severe weakening of the previously hegemonic position of the two larger parties (PSOE and PP), the weakening of the traditional or established radical left (IU), the rise of a centre-right party previously active only in Catalonia to a new role of nation-wide medium-sized party (Ciudadanos), and the forceful growth of a new populist radical left party (Podemos) that has been able to challenge the balance of power within the Spanish left. The June 2016 elections confirmed this new party system format with four big players. This was probably because the new elections took place only after six months after the previous ones but also consolidated the new party politics dynamics of post-2008 Spain.

These party political dynamics were the third key aspect emerging from the June 2016 elections. Besides the most prominent issue of government formation, two very relevant party competition issues were at stake. First, the competition in the centre-right political space between a new party, Ciudadanos, and the incumbent PP finally favored the latter. After the powerful showing of Ciudadanos in the December 2015 election the June one meant a significant strengthening of the incumbent PP and a weakening of the new party. Second, after the sky-rocketing results of the populist radical left Podemos in almost every election since 2014, the polls before the June 2016 elections indicated that it was going to overcome the PSOE as the main left-wing party. The Podemos-IU coalition (UP), jointly with their regional alliances, was apparently ahead of PSOE. However, as already happened in the December 2015 elections when Podemos did not reach its original extremely ambitious goal of winning, this time the expectations were also un-fulfilled. The coalition did not persuade or mobilize enough previous IU and Podemos voters and, as a consequence, its share of votes was well below what IU and Podemos had gained separately in December. UP did not win the elections and did not even overcome the PSOE as the largest party on the left. After a campaign in which the worst scenarios for the PSOE (a further decrease in its share of votes, becoming only the third largest party, and falling behind UP in popular support) were considered most likely, they were finally averted.

Finally, a fourth key political issue at stake in the June 2016 Spanish elections was of a more general and broader nature. It refers to the lessons that these elections leave us in terms of the post-2008 economic crisis elections in Europe. The elections after the 2008 crisis have very often resulted in: the electoral punishment of incumbents, the appearance of new parties, the rise of new populist contenders, and, in sum, significant party system changes. Spain certainly was a good candidate to show every one of these elements given that it was one of the hardest hit countries in the 2008 Great Recession. In Spain the very severe economic crisis, including hardly bearable unemployment levels, was soon followed by a political crisis, expressed through increased dissatisfaction and negative opinions of mainstream parties by citizens. The political crisis included recurrent cases of political corruption affecting above all the centre-right PP.

In a certain sense, Spanish politics lived through a perfect storm, and the expected consequences of such a crisis soon were fully visible. The incumbent PSOE was punished for its austerity policies in the first Great Recession election in 2011, successively the incumbent PP was punished in the 2015 elections also due to the continuation of austerity policies, a new centre-right party aiming at political regeneration, Ciudadanos, appeared to increase its public support rapidly, and a new populist radical left party, Podemos, achieved astonishing electoral successes in the 2015 and 2016 general elections. The mainstream parties saw their support severely weakened and the two new entrants on the right and left of the ideological spectrum introduced a party system change of seismic dimensions.

However, interestingly enough the electoral and political earthquake did not reach ‘Greek’ dimensions in the Spanish case. Some noteworthy elements should be mentioned in relation to this. The centre-right PP and centre-left PSOE maintained their positions as the two largest nationwide parties (although the latter by a very small margin), and the new actors were not able to win an election or to replace them. The PP was able to win the 2015 and 2016 elections, improving its results in the latter, despite the implementation of painful austerity policies and the bail out of the financial sector. In this sense, Spain joined the not-very-numerous group of West European countries where the incumbent was able to win the elections despite the electoral impact of the economic crisis.

Spain also showed that the joint effect of economic and political crises causes critical electoral and party system changes, as the historic decrease in support for the PP and PSOE shows. However, Podemos’ hopes of repeating the Greek Syriza experience in Spain and winning office (or being close to it) – or at least overcoming the PSOE as the largest left-wing party – were possibly unwarranted. In the December 2015 elections, although still tainted by the austerity implemented in its 2008-2011 term, the PSOE maintained its status as the second (and largest left-wing) party, and in the June 2016 elections, confronted by an even more threatening left-wing coalition headed by IU and Podemos, it was able to maintain its position. The challenger parties, and above all Podemos, could not repeat the success of Syriza in Greece despite the PSOE’s discredit in the absence of some of the Greek contextual conditions. These included a centre-left party that was not only delegitimized by the austerity policies that it implemented but also by its alliances with what some voters considered unacceptable government partners.

Finally, the Spanish June 2016 elections also showed an interesting feature in relation to EU politics and policies. Contrary to what has happened in some European countries in which the crisis has produced the rise of populist and challenger parties with strong anti-EU views, in the Spanish case the new actors still navigate within the limits of a broad pro-European integration consensus. Even Podemos and UP only display what could be at most considered as soft Euroscepticism. The de-legitimization of national elites and EU actors has not translated into a rejection of the European integration project in Spain.

Luis Ramiro is Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Leicester where he specializes in party politics.